The human face of God

What is God's relation to death?

The face of Christ that gazes down from the domes of our churches is a human face, but the gaze is the gaze of God Himself. For we believe that in Jesus Christ, God Himself took on a human form and came to live a human life. That is to say that in Christ we encounter God living a human life, God with a human face.

It was not however, just a human life that he lived, he also endured a human death. For the Orthodox, the fallen condition of the world and humanity is manifest primarily in the fact of death, rather than simply sin. It is death that characterizes the fallen human condition, that challenges every human achievement, that threatens us with ultimate meaninglessness.

Like all creatures, we humans were created by God out of nothing. As the nineteenth-century Metropolitan of Moscow, Philaret put it, ‘all creatures are balanced upon the creative word of God, as if upon a bridge of diamond; above them is the abyss of divine infinitude, below them that of their own nothingness’.In turning away from God, the source of our being, there is nowhere else to go than the abyss of nothingness an ultimate diminishment in which all hopes, longings and desires are swallowed up. We experience this as death.

In creating humanity, God granted us freedom to be, and through human fallenness that freedom has become self-destructive. It has become ordered towards death and in some mysterious way we drag the whole created order into an abyss of meaninglessness.

Because we are free, however, God will not simply extinguish us and start again. Instead, out of love for human kind God has opened up his very being to us. He is the Father sending his Son to become a human being. A Son born of the Holy Virgin through the Holy Spirit, sent to embrace all the conditions of fallen human life, including death - death as a criminal on a cross. Death did not however, swallow him up—as it does finite human beings—it swallowed itself up, in the abyss of the divine infinitude.

So death was overcome and on the third day Christ rose from the dead, the conqueror over death. It is this event that we celebrate at Easter or Pascha, the Christian Passover, singing over and over again: ‘Christ has risen from the dead, trampling on death by death, and to those in the graves giving life!’ At Easter we also greet one another with ‘Christ has risen! He has risen indeed!’

The divine taking on death and destroying it sounds like a myth but there has always been the temptation to reduce Christian belief to a myth. Either by turning the Incarnate Son of God into some semi-‘divine’ being, so dissolving the doctrine of the Trinity. Or in some way diminishing the humanity of Christ as if the presence of the divine must overshadow or diminish some aspect of his humanity, making him no longer ‘one of us’.

The first and last of the Seven Œcumenical Synods, both held at Nicaea (modern Iznik in Turkey) and the others mostly held in Constantinople, sought to prevent this blunting of the truth of Christ’s human victory over death. They remain for all Orthodox Christians, an enduring witness to our faith in the human face of God that we encounter in Christ through prayer, in the Divine Liturgy (as we call the Mass or Eucharist), and in the face of every human being that turns to us seeking our love.

Andrew Louth was ordained a priest of the Russian Orthodox Patriarchal Diocese of Sourozh four years ago and serves a parish in Durham. He is also Professor of Patristic and Byzantine Studies in Durham University.
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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue